Applicant’s Perspective: What it was like to apply for the Embassy MEXT Scholarship in 2020 (Guest Post)


Japanese embassy sign mext scholarship

What’s it like to apply for the Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship? Here’s one applicant’s story (Photo by ukmari)

Today, I am excited to bring you a guest post from an Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship applicant who passed the Primary Screening in 2020, Johnny Navarro. Johnny has been a frequent commenter on the blog and has been generous in sharing his experience in those posts, as well. Here’s his story about the Primary Screening from start to finish!


Hello! My name is Johnny Navarro and I was selected as a MEXT 2021 candidate in my home country, Panama. In other words, I was able to successfully pass the Primary Screening this year!

I was kindly invited by Travis to write a guest post in his blog in hopes that by sharing firsthand information on the scholarship process, we might be able to help future applicants.

Do keep in mind this year was extremely special considering the COVID-19 pandemic, many things changed about the scholarship process, but I hope some of this information can be useful to you! Also, the dates mentioned in this post are specific to my situation, but I mention them to give you an idea of how much time every step took.

Start of the Application Process

Note from Travis: If you want to check out my books on the MEXT Scholarship, but can’t afford to purchase them yourself, you can request your university or local library to order them! They are available in the catalogues that most libraries use to order physical or ebooks, and I have the information you need to give the library in the individual pages for those books!

I want to start by mentioning that in the beginning, I was not very familiar with how this scholarship really worked. I only knew the basic information embassies share on their websites. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Travis’ books and blog that I understood how everything works, so do not worry if you are not an expert on the MEXT scholarship, that’s where these kind of resources come in handy.

The MEXT scholarship process can be overwhelming, it is not easy by any means, but don’t let that get to you. If you can, get Travis’ books, I cannot recommend them enough. If you can’t, then just going through Travis’ blog can get you to a whole different level giving you the chance to have a stronger application and hopefully get the scholarship!

Now getting into my actual experience, I started preparing my application about 4 months before the deadline, which is something I wouldn’t recommend. As Travis has mentioned before, in an ideal scenario, you should aim to start preparing at least 6 months before your deadline. I was able to make it in less time, but I had to put in a lot of work to make up for all that lost time. So if you want to be able to prepare your application and review it properly without being in a rush, start at least 6 months before the deadline!
In fact, if you plan to participate next year, you should probably start preparing soon!

Submitting the Application Documents

While the original deadline for submitting the documents would’ve been at about late March/early April, it wasn’t until July that the embassy started accepting the documents, at least in Panama.

The submission was in-person, despite the COVID situation, and the documents were delivered as per the MEXT instructions. If you want to know more about these instructions, you can find them in the Application Guidelines, but basically you have to print out all the documents, number them by hand (each document has a particular number shown on the Guidelines) and put them within an envelope.

Note #1: When I delivered the documents I didn’t have my graduation diploma yet, but I was able to participate just fine with an official letter from my university showing that I had already finished my bachelor’s degree. The same should work if you haven’t finished yet but expect to do so before the application process ends. You will be asked for your actual diploma upon passing the first screening though.
Note # 2: My embassy did not have any additional requirements for applying to the scholarship. It could be possible for embassies in other countries to ask for additional documents so be careful!

Getting the Confirmation

After you deliver the documents they must review them before giving you the chance of taking the exams and doing the interview. A lot of applicants are discarded at this point, that’s why it’s important for your application to be as strong as possible!

My embassy’s deadline was on August 31st and I was confirmed to have passed the document review on September 2nd, so it took about 2 – 3 days. Only about 7 people were chosen after reviewing the documents. They contacted us through email, it could be different for you but just in case be sure to provide them with an email you check regularly so you don’t miss it!

It is worth mentioning that originally the exams and interview were supposed to be taken on September 7th but were moved to September 14th. The reason I mention this is because had the exams remained on the original date, we would have had only 5 days to prepare.
In the end, I had almost 2 weeks to prepare for the exams and interview, but this was an exceptional case, so don’t be surprised if next year you only get less than a week to prepare after being confirmed you passed the document review!

Exams and Interview

Usually the exams and interview are done in separate days, with the exams being first, but this year I had to take both on the same day.
The exams were taken first and only those who passed were told to return to have the interview. The same applies for the “normal” application process, only those who pass the exams can move on to the interviews usually held the next day.

In case you didn’t know, for the graduate version of the MEXT scholarship you must take English and Japanese exams. With emphasis on the English one since the Japanese exam is not taken into consideration when selecting the candidates, you don’t need to know Japanese in order to win this scholarship. If anything, performing well on the Japanese exam could influence on whether you need to take the six-month language program upon arriving at Japan.

English Exam

The exam was just as you would expect it to be if you practiced with the sample tests found on the Study in Japan website. In my case, I also practiced with TOEFL sample tests, particularly weird vocabulary you don’t usually find in day to day conversation and reading comprehension.

The English exam is not complicated so you should be able to pass it just fine. Considering most people that win the MEXT scholarship take English-taught graduate programs in Japan, you should probably be already proficient enough in English to pass the embassy’s exam without problem.

Japanese Exam

Note from Travis: While the Japanese exam is not critical to your evaluation in many cases, do not leave it blank! In the 2019/2020 application cycle, several applicants reported that they did not pass the Secondary Screening because they had left the Japanese language exam blank during the Primary Screening process.

As I mentioned before, the Japanese one is not particularly relevant to get the scholarship, but in case you are interested, it was just as the Study in Japan samples (with a couple of changes in the Kanji section), separated into three parts going from beginner to advanced. I have studied Japanese before so I could do the beginner and intermediate sections just fine, the advanced one was… interesting. I would say it was about N2 – N1 level so it got quite difficult. It was fun, nonetheless. The embassy officials told us we could just fill it in randomly in case we didn’t know any Japanese at all, so don’t get frustrated if you can’t understand anything! The exam is completely in Japanese after all, there are no English instructions.

Interview

This is the most important part of the whole primary screening. This is when you “sell” your research idea to the embassy officials and show them why YOUR idea matters and not the other applicants’. Might sound a bit cruel but this is a highly competitive process and you want to make sure you stand out.

In my case, the interview committee consisted of 3 people: one Japanese embassy official and two former MEXT scholars. My entire interview was done in my mother language (Spanish), although I’ve heard applicants being asked a couple of questions in English before, even a couple in Japanese if you tell them you know the language. Of course this wouldn’t matter if your mother language is English, but in case you are from a non-English speaking country keep in mind you may be asked questions in English.

Regarding the actual interview questions, my interview was a little bit peculiar. If you have read Travis’ guide on how to prepare for the interview you’d remember that the committee usually ask you several “generic” questions about your interests on studying in Japan. They usually don’t dive too much into questions about your actual research, in fact Travis recommends us not to talk too much about it ourselves in case we end up hurting our chances to get the scholarship, however in my case almost all of the questions were related to my research idea!

They only asked me 3 of the “generic” questions and then moved on to talk about my research idea for the rest of the interview. I did not expect that at all. In fact, the former MEXT scholars from the interview committee were not even from my area of study and they still asked highly specific questions about my research. So I guess you should just in case prepare for something like that.

Interview questions may vary between applicants, but for reference here are mine:

  • What do you want to study and why in Japan?
  • What sort of cultural activities would you do once in Japan?
  • Have you travelled to Japan before? If not, how have you been exposed to Japanese culture?

After that, all the other questions were about my research idea. I won’t get too much into them since they were very specific to my idea and area of study so it would probably not be useful for everyone, but to give you a general idea, the committee was interested in things like:

  • Where would I get the input data for my research.
  • If had my research idea been done before in either Japan or my home country.
  • In what ways my idea could benefit the general field of study.
  • How could I benefit my home country with the results.
  • How would I apply the results of my particular research from a Japanese setting to my home country considering cultural differences.

I was not prepared for that last question! So I had to come up with ideas right on the spot. Expect the unexpected, they might ask you about scenarios you haven’t particularly thought of before, but what matters is that you don’t get anxious, come up with a creative solution!

Fun fact: when they asked me about my exposure to Japanese culture I mentioned about my love for Japanese literature and we ended up discussing our favorite Japanese authors and books, that was quite interesting!

If I had to give a single advice regarding the interview, it would be to always show them clearly that your idea is not for yourself but rather to help both your home country and Japan. Show them you are not doing this for you, but to help others. The outcome must be beneficial for both countries, otherwise what’s the point.

Note: If you are asked about why you chose Japan as your destination for graduate education, please don’t mention that your reason is because you love Anime or Manga! Even if you are a diehard fan, talking about Anime or Manga in your interview is only going to hurt your chances of winning.

First Screening Results

I had my exams and interview on September 14th, after that I was notified to have been chosen as a MEXT 2021 candidate on September 16th. Only 2 days later! I’m not sure if they deliver the results that fast every year, but originally they told me it could take up to 1 week.
They notified me through a phone call (the best phone call of my life!) and sent me an email after. I’ve been in contact with embassy officials through email ever since.

And that’s it. That’s how my MEXT 2021 application process finished (at least the primary screening). It was a quite long and difficult process, I really think I couldn’t have done it without the help of Travis’s books and blog, so I owe him a lot, thanks Travis!

What’s next?

As of the time of writing this post you could say I’m still in the application process, namely the Secondary Screening. I have to start contacting universities to get their letters of acceptance and then everything will be sent to Japan to double check everything is OK before they assign me to a particular university (they are the ones who decide where to send you in the end in case you didn’t know). And that’s pretty much it.

If you feel like keeping in touch with me for any reason, you can visit my website www.johnnynavarro.com, there you can find my contact info, LinkedIn account and other stuff!

You can also find me at www.kikure.com, a small blog about different ways of going to Japan! I am a writer/developer there so please check it out if you are interested! We post content both in English and Spanish. Kikure also have social media accounts: @kikureblog on Instagram and both @EspanolKikure and @KikureBlog on Twitter, were we post about useful and interesting Japanese words and we also notify whenever a new blog post is uploaded to the website.

That’s all from me, thank you very much Travis for allowing me to write this guest post! Hopefully this information can be useful for future applicants, みんな頑張ってください!

Thanks for taking your time to read about my experience, feel free to leave any questions you have!

Johnny Navarro


Many thanks to Johnny for sharing his experience! I hope this has been helpful for all of you. Please feel free to leave any questions below.

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